In the first 10 minutes of ESPN’s Monday NFL Countdown, sideline reporter Michele Tafoya said something that reminded us of the infinite ESPN loop of video of Steelers linebacker James Harrison’s legal hit on Browns receiver Josh Cribbs during discussions about the proliferation of illegal hits.
“[Hines] Ward told us he thinks that players aren’t really sure what the league wants,” Tafoya said. “And there’s one point of contention in particular. When a ball carrier crouches or moves, putting his head or neck in the line of fire at the very last second, well Harrison told us that NFL director of operation Merton Hanks, a former All Pro safety himself, said, ‘In those circumstances, it is the tackler, the defender, who has to be responsible for making the adjustment. Harrison told us that explanation makes absolutely no sense.”
It definitely makes no sense because it was presented with a flawed premise. When a “ball carrier” ducks his head at the last minute and absorbs a shoulder or a helmet to the head, it’s not a violation of the rules. A “ball carrier” isn’t a “defenseless player.” A “ball carrier” therefore assumes the risk of getting hit in the head when he lowers his head just before impact.
I started to write an item explaining how ESPN’s chronic ignorance of the rules and their nuances is doing a disservice to the fans and, ultimately, to the game. But then it was mentioned that Commissioner Roger Goodell would be talking with Tafoya.
Good, we thought. Goodell will use the opportunity to explain to Tafoya the difference between ball carriers and defenseless players.
Goodell had a chance to clear it all up. And he didn’t.
Asked by Tafoya to identify the disconnect between the league office and the locker room, Goodell offered no specifics. “Well, it’s one of the things you always strive for is to make sure the players understand the rules, understand exactly the techniques that we’re focused on,” Goodell said. “We spent a lot of time in the offseason doing that. The rules haven’t changed. But there’s a greater emphasis on safety. And we have to make sure we make the game as safe as possible. And we have to do everything we can to educate the players. It’s one of the reasons we brought James in, so that we could give him an opportunity to ask the questions, I could hear his perspective, and our football people could have a conversation with him.”
That’s really not an answer that helps anyone better understand the situation. What he should have said (or, at a minimum, what we would have said) is this: “All we ask is that defenseless players not be hit in the head or with the head, and that no player launch with his helmet into a player who has just completed the act of catching a pass.”
Tafoya asked next about criticism from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin that the “drastic adjustment” made during the season is an “emotional reaction.”
“There are no rule changes,”Goodell said. “We didn’t change the rule. So we didn’t make a drastic change. All we did is said if you violate that rule, for safety reasons, we’re going to increase the discipline. . . . This isn’t an emotional decision. This is one that’s about the safety of our players.” (That was a good question, and a good answer.)
Then came the money question. The “ball carrier” dipping his head question. The opportunity for Goodell to clarify for ESPN and anyone else who doesn’t understand the difference between a helmet-to-helmet hit on a “ball carrier” and a “defenseless receiver.”
Instead, he agreed that “it’s a difficult position to put a defender in.”
It should be no surprise, then, that so many fans believe the NFL is trying to take the toughness out of the sport. At a time when the media and others stewards of the game are failing to clearly explain what the rules prohibit and what the rules permit, those inclined to grumble about the perceived breadth of the changes will have plenty of ammunition to convince themselves and others that the NFL has gone soft.
At some point, Goodell needs to sit down for an in-depth interview with someone who understands the rules — and at that time he needs to explain precisely where the line between permissibly rough play and impermissibly dirty play resides. Until that happens, too many members of the media, and thus even many more fans, will remain confused.